Pernell Roberts did not want to wear a toupee on Bonanza — and it once fell off in a scene
Adam Cartwright had a hair-raising stunt in season six.
The Cartwright clan might have looked mighty different. Bonanza series creator David Dortort had different actors in mind early in the casting process. For the patriarchal role of Ben, Dortort initially considered Lee J. Cobb, who would land a role on The Virginian. Former Little Rascal and future Baretta Robert Blake nearly had the role of Little Joe, as did Robert Fuller, who saddled up on Laramie instead.
The rugged Claude Akins, hot off roles in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Rio Bravo (1959) came to Dortort's mind as a potential Adam Cartwright. Dortort took notice of Pernell Roberts on the Universal lot. An NBC exec had likewise taken note of Roberts in the big-screen Western Ride Lonesome. The decision was made to cast the Georgia native as the eldest son.
In the first week of shooting, Roberts walked into Dortort's office. He removed his toupee. Dortort was not aware that Roberts wore a hairpiece.
Roberts suggested that he'd rather play Adam au naturel, without his toupee. Dortort refused, claiming the star looked "15 years older without it." He was 31 years old at the time. For perspective, Greene, his fictional pa, was 44.
So, Adam Cartwright kept his hair.
Well, for the most part.
In the opening scene of "Thanks for Everything, Friend," an early episode from season six that aired in 1964, Adam falls into a river when freeing a trapped calf. The rapids sweep the friendly Man in Black away — and rip off the actor's toupee. For a fleeting moment, the viewer can spot a bald Roberts flailing about in the water. The flap of hair quickly returns. You can watch the clip above.
Roberts should not have felt shame. In fact, he was hardly alone. Both Greene and Dan Blocker (Hoss) wore hairpieces, as well. Greene had his own toupee mishap when leaping into a pond for a stunt. Michael Landon was the only one of the four core Cartwrights to not wear a toupee. Roberts would get his wish to act without it, at last, when he became the star of the M*A*S*H spin-off Trapper John, M.D.